Letter to the Editor

Visible Language, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Letter to the Editor


A response to Earl M. Herrick's article "Toward Disambiguating the Term "Roman" in Visible Language 33.2, by Dr. Burke

While one may welcome Earl M. Herrick's attempt to 'disambiguate' the term 'roman,' some of his proposed alternative terms may provide new confusions, at least for students and scholars of letterforms and typography. He modestly proposes his new alternatives for 'roman' as suggestions, which may lead to further discussion; so that is the spirit in which I would like to make some comments on his proposals.

Professor Herrick's statement of the problem, that roman has several different nuances of meaning is indisputable, but his argument does not take full account of certain well-established terminological traditions from within the printing trade and the fields of printing history and typographic scholarship. But, to begin positively, his suggestion of the additional employment of 'upright' to signify variants of roman type that are not sloped or 'italic' does seem useful.

It is in his definitions of 'roman-shaped' and 'Italic-shaped' that significant problems arise. His choice of illustrations lets him down here to a large extent. Prof. Herrick partly takes Eric Gill's sketch of 'essentially italic' letter shapes (figure 3a) as a guide and deduces therefrom that it is these shapes, and not slope, that define 'italic-shaped,' given that there are some sloped typefaces which do not possess these requisite italic shapes. Gill himself said that slope is not one of the "essential marks of difference," but that it is one of the "customary differences which seem almost as important." (Some would dispute Gill's model for an italic lowercase g, which is peculiar to him and relatively uncommon.) Italic variants of type, as opposed to merely sloped romans, usually have the added aspect of cursive features derived historically from speedy writing, which also naturally gives rise to an angle of slope. This becomes a little clearer when we consider terms in other languages, such as German, where a real italic is a kursiv, and a sloped roman is simply called schr&g. (German labeling of typefaces is generally sounder on this point than English - for example, most sloped variants of sanserif typefaces are called schrag in German, as they do not have cursive features. English equivalents sometimes employed are 'inclined' or 'oblique.' So when Prof. Herrick extends his supposition to describe the lowercase letter 'a' of the 'upright' variant of the well-known typeface Futura as 'italic-shaped/ he is in danger of creating some confusion. He does not explore the identity of sanserif letters in his article. Sanserif typefaces (of which Futura is one) occupy a difficult position in the classification of letterforms. The upright version of Futura should perhaps not be called a 'roman' (although its designer called it 'a serifless roman'), but it simply does not feel right to describe any part of it as 'italic-shaped,' due to the historical association of cursive qualities with the term 'italic.' There is nothing cursive (derived from a flowing writing instrument) about the small "a" in Futura - it is a constructed, geometric letter. It is true that the conventional meanings of 'roman' and 'italic' have many loose associations, but these carry some weight of tradition and cannot be trampled over in the desire for a rational system. (Herrick points to the 'curious' essay by Stanley Morison of 1924, "Towards an ideal italic," in which Morison bizarrely suggests that "it is necessary to beat out of the italic more than seventy-five percent of its cursive quality." This itself was an example of an over-rational reforming approach.)

There are further problems with Herrick's suggestion of the term 'Trajanicized' to mean, as I understand it, serifed and with contrast between the thickness of strokes (Herrick talks of 'lines' instead of strokes in a letter). Apart from the ungainliness of the word 'Trajanicized,' it will make some people groan at the implied reassertion of the primacy of a certain ancient Roman inscription in defining the style of western script.

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